- Election cybersecurity experts said Tuesday that “the electorate may not be prepared for how long it’s going to take” for winners to be declared after the general election on November 3rd.
- A panel that included two cybersecurity experts who served in the White House agreed that simply counting ballots may take a week or two.
- Any litigation that follows that counting could postpone results for much longer in a scene reminiscent of the 2000 election, when results were delayed until January.
- The experts also said voters’ loss of trust in the system may be the biggest risk in the upcoming election.
- Despite fears of foreign interference, hacked voting machines, and disinformation campaigns, there is some optimism that the country is better prepared than in 2016.
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If you’re an American mentally preparing to settle onto the couch on the night of November 3 and see who wins the presidential election – and many other races – you might want to pull the couch out into a sofa bed and get plenty of provisions.
“It’s going to take a while,” Betsy Cooper, policy director at the Aspen Institute, said at a virtual panel discussion on election security Tuesday hosted by Highwire PR. “It will take a week or two just to count the ballots. If there are any irregularities or litigation over the results it could take much longer.”
That conclusion about what awaits Americans on Election Night was unanimous. “It’s not going to look like previous Election Nights…with the parties and balloons,” said Bill Harrod, federal chief technical officer of cybersecurity company MobileIron. Just fielding results of electronic ballots, mail-in ballots and in-person ballots will be time-consuming, but ensuring the results are accurate and have not been tampered with will be a patient process.
“The electorate may not be prepared for how long it’s going to take,” said Maggie MacAlpine, cofounder of the DEFCON Voting Machine Hacking Village, an area at the annual cybersecurity conference where hackers have tried (and succeeded) in hacking voting machines.
Trust in elections is the biggest risk, experts warn
Many risks await America in November, from threats of foreign intervention like the Russian interference in 2016 to controversies over disinformation on social media. But those things are not as fragile as another risk in the election, the panel said.
The experts agreed that retaining voters’ trust in the process may be the most biggest priority of the election. “The biggest threat is a loss of trust for the electorate. If people lose faith in the election process, that’s the most damaging thing that can happen,” Harrod said.
Michael Daniel, president of security industry group the Cyber Threat Alliance and former special assistant to President Barack Obama on cybersecurity matters, concurred. “That’s the threat we’re trying to mitigate.” Slowly going through results and processes and ensuring the security of systems will be crucial, Daniel said.
“Trust is huge,” agreed Mick Baccio, a security advisor at data analysis company Splunk and another former advisor to Obama on cybersecurity. “And it might not take much disinformation to threaten it.”
Some optimism that US is better prepared than in 2016
Despite the experts’ concern, Baccio, who also led cybersecurity for former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, said he believes “we’re in a much better place than we were in 2016. I think we’ve gotten much better.” Baccio praised the hiring of a chief information security officer by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, new efforts at the Department of Homeland Security, a program run by Microsoft, and Google’s participation in another.
“By this time in 2016, the DNC had been hacked,” he said, referring to the hacking and publishing of emails from Democratic National Committee officials in June and July of 2016. “I think we’ve learned a lot since then.”
With mail-in ballots, electronic ballots and in-person voting providing an obstacle course for election officials in November, the experts suggested that the most comparable US presidential election might not be 2016 but 2000, when election officials scrutinized results for more than two months – including the tiny paper dots poked out of paper ballots in Florida.
“What’s the digital equivalent of hanging chads?” Harrod asked. “We might see them.”
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